By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 18, 2012) US Soccer Players – It took the first expansion to get me into Major League Soccer. Chicago joining the League gave me a team I could watch and later cover in person. That changed everything. At the time, DC United was the club everybody else wanted to emulate, beat, or otherwise turn into a trivia question. Who was the most successful team in the early years of MLS? An obvious answer was given by all. DC United, and part of that was DC winning non-MLS tournaments.
The first to fall was the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup. That predecessor to the Champions League meant a date with CONMEBOL's champion for the Copa Interamericana. DC won that too, setting the standard for MLS teams in international competition. With no FIFA Club World Cup, DC's run stopped as the champion club team in North, Central, and South America. At the time, it was more than enough. Throw down the gauntlet. Even in a year when they lost the MLS Cup to an expansion team, nobody did better than DC United.
It hardly mattered that it was the last Copa Interamericana or that both legs happened in the United States. The quality of the competition didn't have to live up to what it represented for a young league. It was proof that MLS would compete. That night at Lockhart Stadium when United won the Interamericana gave every MLS fan a stock answer for how their league was doing. Quite well, thanks.
The Interamericana and the rest of DC's trophies live in a less than inspiring trophy case in the lobby of the DC offices at RFK. They're packed in there like what you'd expect from a high school. It's not Pittsburgh's NFL team, where their multiple Super Bowl trophies rest in shrines as you make your way through the concourse. To some extent, that's also part of the story. The original soccer ball with arcs MLS Cups. The new and improved MLS Cup and a couple of Open Cups. That CONCACAF trophy and the Interamericana. There's no pride of place for the most important trophy an MLS team has ever won. It's in there, you just need to look for it.
Which brings us to yet another Champions League night in Major League Soccer's 17th year. CONCACAF gets credit for tweaking the tournament to put more at stake in the group stage than the European model they copied. Only one team advances, and enough of these groups aren't easy to make the competitive point. From this season on, advancing to the knockout round means more than it did.
Yet there's still a push-pull between what this tournament means for an MLS club. For the League, it's simple. Winning the Champions League means the potential for meaningful games against teams everyone recognizes. It's a substantial risk-reward, demonstrated by the Mexican clubs failing boldly at Club World Cup level. As the old saying goes, first you have to get there.
All the MLS clubs involved in Champions League play say the right things. This isn't the US Open Cup where a team can get away with lessening their chances through roster selection. Yet there's still an ideal that doesn't seem to interest most of the competing clubs. The real proof is winning domestically and internationally. It's the true champions model, contending across competitions. Again, that might not include the Open Cup, but it certainly means the League.
Real Salt Lake isn't making it easy on themselves in that regard. Dropping to fourth in the Western Conference and eighth overall in the Supporters' Shield table, they're also second in their Champions League group. In the new world of CONCACAF where only winners advance, that means making up three points against leaders Herediano. That makes beating Tauro later tonight in Panama City (8pm ET - Fox Soccer, Galavision) a necessity. Still, we're not at the level of awareness that makes it feel like this is a big game.
With two games remaining in the MLS regular season, RSL's league standing matters more. That's true even after they've dropped the kind of points they should've been piling up near or at the top of the West. That's true even though RSL is a team that has openly said the Champions League is the priority.
Good intentions aside, there's simply no switchover to valuing the Champions League as more important right now than those League points. There's not even a balance that says both are necessary for a club to achieve. For this League in general, and RSL in particular, that means the MLS Cup is still the trophy that really counts. Exactly what you'd expect from a North American major league, even if it's not the model for professional soccer everywhere else.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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